Long Beach escaped flames during historic fire season, but how toxic is all the smoke we’ve had?

It’s recommended over and over again these days that one of the few safe things you can still do during COVID is go outside and get some fresh air.

But as many people in Long Beach as well as in the rest of the West, know, the air is not always fresh these days, as California continues to be ablaze in many places and spewing unhealthy air during the state’s worst fire season in recorded history.

The total fires so far for the state in 2020 is 9,639, burning more than 4 million acres, destroying 10,488 structures and resulting in 33 fatalities according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

While those numbers are statewide, with many occurring in the northern part of California, there have been several relatively local blazes that have darkened the sky, turning the sun into a dim orange ball, and covered porches, patios and cars with layers of soot and ash in Long Beach and causing red flag warnings in Long Beach and elsewhere in Southern California.

And, while inhaling air carrying soot and ash is obviously unhealthy, it’s not necessarily deadly. “It’s the same as cigarettes,” said Anthony Wexler, director of Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis. “You’re basically inhaling ash and smoke from burning leaves and vegetation. Some people smoke for 20 years and don’t get cancer.”

What’s more dangerous and stealthy are the things you can’t see—microscopic particles as much as 60 times smaller than the breadth of a human hair that accompany the fallout from wildfire, he said.

“Those particulates cause most of the bad health effects,” said Dan Jaffe, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Washington. “If you’re seeing the big particles like those covering your car, absolutely there will also be the more dangerous particulate matter.”

For sure, Jaffe said, that would include the Bond Fire that’s still burning in Silverado Canyon, as well as other blazes such as the mammoth Bobcat Fire that raged from Sept. 6 through Nov. 2 in the Central San Gabriel Mountains that destroyed 115,796 acres, and the El Dorado Fire (sparked by the gender reveal party) near Yucaipa in San Bernardino County.

Jaffe said that smoke from wildfires can contain hundreds or even thousands of compounds, many of which are detrimental to health. PM 2.5, particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers, can enter the lungs and cause respiratory tract irritation or more serious disorders, including reduced lung function, bronchitis, exacerbation of asthma and premature death.

“What people see are the flames and their destruction, which is horrific, but it’s the smoke that’s more insidious,” said Peter Kareiva, president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific and former director of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.

“Its major impact is especially on the elderly and children. It has an impact on the mortality rate of the elderly, and if you’re an infant it can stick with you for life.”

According to AirNow, which tracks air-quality data throughout the US, all children, even those without pre-existing illnesses or chronic conditions, are considered at risk of experiencing a health effect due to air pollution, including wildfire smoke, for a variety of reasons, such as the fact that they spend more time outdoors, tend to engage in more vigorous activities and inhale more air per pound of body weight.

The elderly are at an increased risk from short-term exposure to wildfire smoke because of a higher prevalence of pre-existing lung and heart issues and because of a decline with age of physiological defense mechanisms.

The third sector that’s at a particular risk is the portion of the population in a low socioeconomic class, an area defined in epidemiologic studies using such indicators as median household income, educational attainment and location of residence.

“All these problems that derive from climate change are socioeconomic problems,” said Bill Patzert, a climatologist and oceanographer who worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 35 years before his recent retirement.

Access to air-conditioning reduces the amount of particle pollution indoors, for instance, and many in the lower socioeconomic classes can’t afford air-conditioning.

Similarly, many of the people in those classes live in less desirable (hence, typically less healthy) parts of town, such as neighborhoods near the 710 Freeway, the Port of Long Beach and refineries, the pollution from which is added to the pollution from wildfire that snake from the foothills and mountains in Long Beach and other urban areas.

California’s biggest fire season in history is partially attributable to an increasing population in places susceptible to wildfire, said Patzert.

“Things are exacerbated by the human element with people moving into these areas that have traditionally had a lot of wildfires, particularly the mountain passes—the San Gorgonio Pass, the Corona Pass, the Santa Clarita Valley.”

Patzert noted that there are 200 million dead trees in the Sierras, the state’s water reservoirs are at low levels, and there are massive amounts of overgrown grasses and other foliage waiting to catch fire. Said Patzert: “My simple formula regarding building in high-risk areas is people equal fires.”

The University of Washington’s Jaffe agrees. “With these incursions of people in these areas also contributes. You get more and more people driving in the woods and along logging trails and a muffler falls off an you get a spark and—boom!—you’ve got a wildfire. And, of course there’s an increase in accidents from cigarettes, barbecues, fire pits.”

Experts all agree that the most effective ways to prevent inhaling toxic particulates is mostly a lot of common-sense suggestions, and they include spending more time indoors, keeping windows and exterior doors closed, operating air-conditioners with clean filters, avoiding prolonged or heavy exertion and taking more breaks during outdoor activities.

“It’s bad in most places in California,” said Patzert, who lives in Sierra Madre, below the Bobcat Fire. “It has a tremendous effect on human health, and with COVID, it’s a catastrophe on many levels. All of Southern California needs rain, a good bath to shower away all this ash.”

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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